If there is any sport which can test a person’s soul, golf would have to be at or near the top of the list.
Where else but on a golf course can you fire a straight shot and find yourself in the middle of a lush fairway and then with a swing of the club see your ball making a bee line for the water. It is a test of character and patience as much as it is one of athletic skill.
Making sure he does not celebrate a good shot because he knows a bad one could be coming at any time has been a hallmark of the game of Will Hicks. Several college coaches saw that when they took in a Hicks-played round and took note of the Camden High School senior’s being able to keep his emotions in check.
That same level-headed attitude came into play when Hicks made his college decision. And on Nov. 12, he made good on his verbal pledge to Erskine College by signing a National Letter of Intent with Jason Allen’s program.
When he arrives on the Due West campus next summer, he will join a Flying Fleet golf program which already has 2014 Lugoff-Elgin graduates and current Erskine freshmen Jake Barker and Chandler Walters on the roster.
As he prepared to head into a meeting room inside the CHS library to be part of Hicks’ signing ceremony, Bulldog head golf coach and Camden Country Club professional Matt McCarley wondered where the years went with a young man who, after school, has a part-time job at the club.
"It seems like yesterday that Will was a little seventh-grader playing on my varsity team and now, here we are with him getting ready to go off to college," McCarley said with a smile and a shake of his head.
"What I like about Will and, I think everyone around the (Camden Country) club and around town will tell you, is that Will has a great attitude. He’s always smiling. He’s never up too high or, down too low. Golf is an emotional roller coaster and it can put you on some highs and some lows. But Will has that God-given ability to stay even-keeled and that’s a reflection on his parents and grandparents. He’s just a really good boy to be around."
Shortly after signing with Erskine, Hicks was all smiles.
Among the selling points for the school of some 600 students to Hicks the size of the school, a student-teacher ratio of 11:1 and a strong golf program.
"It’s a great program," he said. "The last time I checked, I think they were ranked fifth in the nation in (NCAA) Division II. I love the coach; he’s a really great guy. The school is great; it’s a beautiful little campus. It’s such a small school and, I love that feeling because I can get one-to-one with the teachers. I feel it’s going to be the best place for golf and education for me.
"For a long time, I’ve been thinking about where I wanted to go to college and, until recently, Erskine didn’t come up. But I got along with the coach really well and things worked out. I couldn’t be happier."
Signing day was a long time coming for Hicks who started swinging a club when he was two years old. A year or two later, his father and former Camden High tennis standout Todd Hicks would take his son to the golf course to play a couple holes or, just go into the backyard to hit some golf balls.
By the time Will Hicks was eligible to play on the Bulldog golf team as a seventh-grader, he was already endearing himself to McCarley. By the end of that 2010 campaign, the team’s youngest player had played his way to the team’s number one slot.
"From seventh to eighth grade was where you could see the biggest difference in my game," Hicks said. "I was playing with the high school guys and you could see that after practicing with them a lot, that my game was getting a lot better toward the end of the season.
"By the eighth grade, my game was a lot more consistent and I was three or four shots better, easily, than I was in my seventh grade year."
By his freshman season, Hicks was a known commodity in junior golf circles in the state. Playing for a Bulldog team which was hit hard by graduation following the 2011 season, Hicks played his way into the 2012 AAA state tournament after Camden did not qualify for the 16-team event as a team.
All the youngster did at the Hackler Course at Coastal Carolina University would be to finish second behind Chapin’s Will Starke, a current member of the University of South Carolina golf team. Starke fired a 68-70—138 while Hicks carded a 73-72—145.
By then, after having had a taste of success and having played with players who were going on to play golf in college or, having watched college players and their teams practice at the Camden Country Club, Hicks knew that he wanted to join their ranks.
But after bursting onto the AAA state golf scene, Hicks started struggling with his game something which McCarley said is hardly unusual in the sport of golf at any level.
"Will got off to a good start in ninth grade when he was runner-up in the (AAA) state tournament," said McCarley a former USC golf team captain. "But golf is the kind of game where even the greatest players in the world have slumps. Will had a slump and I think he’s fighting his way out of it right now."
With an eye on playing golf in college, Hicks said that after his sophomore season, his devoted more time to refining his game. That journey continues to this day.
"After my 10th grade year, I started working on my game a lot so that I could get to where I needed to be for the future; not just for college but after college," Hick said. "The way I used to play was more natural. I didn’t put a lot of thought into it. I just went out there and played. There are a lot of good things to that but I wanted to take it to the next level and be consistent.
"The last couple seasons, there has been progress. There haven’t been as many wins or top finishes as I may have liked but I can see the results are coming and that everything is coming together."
Hicks has been taken under McCarley’s wing on his collegiate path. Either working for McCarley in the off- season or playing for him in the spring, there is a student-teacher relationship as well as a player-coach relationship between the two Camden natives.
"Will has really good instincts for playing the game," McCarley said of Hicks’ improvement. "He is working on some fundamental stuff in his golf game, right now. I think that will start paying off for him over the next few months. He’s going to start playing like he is capable of playing.
"His swing technique is getting better so he should start being able to control his ball better. What we’ve talked about and have really emphasized more than anything is that Will has to work hard around the greens from 50 yards and in. That is the key to being a good player, especially at the next level where all the guys hit the ball pretty well. The difference is the guys who can chip and putt and get the ball in the hole."
Hicks has been working on the fundamentals for some time now. He said he is tempering his swing so that it does not get too long. But it is focusing his attention to the short clubs and the putter which has taken up plenty of his practice time.
"I work a lot around the greens now,’ he said when told of McCarley’s comments as to what areas he needed to become more consistent. " I used to be just a ball-striker and my short game was where I was losing shots. I realized that your short game is where your score added up. This winter, especially, I’m, putting a lot of emphasis on my short game. Hopefully, I can see some results."
This weekend, Hicks will travel to Sea Island, Ga., to play for Team South Carolina in the Hurricane Cup for top junior golfers in the southeast. A year ago, Hicks and his teammates finished third in the event. After that will come the high school season and then, summer tournaments as Hicks tries to fine-tune his game in order to try and become an impact player as a freshman at Erskine.
McCarley said playing golf at the college level is cut and dried. Those who shoot the lowest in qualifying and practice will play in and travel to tournaments while the other teammates will be left at home to work on their games.
"He’s going to have to start shooting lower," McCarley said of what Hicks needs to play at the college level. "You can be competitive in junior golf shooting 72s, 73s, 74s and 75s. But if you want to be a good college golfer, you have to get under par on a regular basis. That is why is so important that he continues to work hard on his chipping, putting and that part of the game."
That is one change of many both on and off the golf course which Will Hicks is preparing himself for once he gets to Erskine. He said one of the biggest differences from high school golf to playing in college is being part of a team throughout the academic year as opposed to a few weeks in the spring. And, he looks forward to everything else being a college player entails.
"It will be a lot more business feeling with my golf," he said. "I feel that having the competition of having to qualify to play on a team for a spot and for a travel spot will be good for me. I know a lot of the guys there and I have seen their games creep to new levels. I’m hoping that mine can do the same.
"I’m really excited for next fall at Erskine. It’s going to be exciting to get up there and be around all the guys because I know a few of them. It should be a lot of fun."